Honouring our military history
Malaysia has several important war historical sites that should be preserved and promoted, experts say. and there is a market for military history tourism.
“DEC 7, 1941. A date that will live on in infamy.” Most people are probably familiar with this famous line, delivered by United States president Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
While that date does indeed deserve it’s reputation, a lot less people are aware of a similar event that happened around the same time. Dec 8, 1941, was the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Malaya, with a Japanese invasion fleet landing at Kota Baru, Kelantan.
Those landings marked the first major battle of the Pacific War. It was the first time this conflict could truly be called a World War: previously, most battles had only taken place on European soil. Yet this important milestone was mostly only known to historians. Mention the Kota Baru landings, and you’d probably get blank stares from most people.
But why is this so, considering this event had just as much historical importance as Pearl Harbor?
This was among the topics brought up at “Preserving War Historical Sites and Promoting Military History Tourism in Malaysia”, a panel discussion that took place during “Malaya At War”, a conference held to commemorate Malaysian military history, particularly the Malayan campaign and the Malayan Emergency. It was held on Aug 10 and 11 at the Royal Chulan Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
(The Malayan Campaign was a series of battles fought between Allies (mostly British Commonwealth) and Axis (primarily Japanese) forces in Malaya from Dec 8, 1941, to Jan 31, 1942. It ended with the fall of Singapore and the occupation of the Malay peninsula. The Malayan Emergency was a guerilla war fought in Malaya from 1948-1960, between the British Commonwealth and communist armed forces.)
The panel consisted of Malaysian battlefield guides George Yong and Zafrani Arifin, Holiday Tours and Travel Sdn Bhd Business Development Head Henry Ong, and accredited battlefield guide and Australian military historian Dennis Weatherall. It was moderated by War History Institute research director Seumas Tan.
According to the panel, Malaysia had many interesting World War II military historical sites. These included the Green Ridge in Perak (where the historic 1941 Battle of Kampar took place, the old Gemas railway station), the Buloh Kasap broken bridge, and the Parit Sulong Memorial. A lot of them, however, were in a state of neglect, or were not well-known – which is a pity, as Malaysia has a rich military history that is begging to be shared with a wider audience.
Promoting our country’s military history, the panel said, has its challenges. According to Zafrani, one of this is many major events took place over many places, including parts of Malaya, Singapore and Thailand. To get a comprehensive look at the country’s military history therefore might require a trip to three different countries. Certain sites are also in the middle of the jungle, making it difficult to get to.
However, it is important to preserve and promote them, as they would bring many benefits to the country.
“There needs to be more promotion of our local historical sites. They can use the opportunity to create economic income from people who come and visit. I think it should be supported by the government. In France, for example, everyone knows about Normandy, and the D-Day landings. We have sites of just as much historical importance!” Zafrani said. “We need to leverage our local history more. Tour guides, for example, should do more research to find more information on places, and we can create a strong industry.”
Yong added that, in his experience, there is a market for military history tourism. One reason, however, why Malaysians do not often visit famous war sites, is because these places are mostly associated with death and violence. The more superstitious among them, therefore, regard them as taboo.
Other challenges are historical events such as the Japanese “scorched earth” policy, which was their military strategy to destroy everything to prevent an enemy from gaining any sort of benefit.
“Because of this ‘scorched earth’ policy, at the end of the war, it makes history a bit difficult. A lot of source documents are missing. And when delivering information, we need to go to the source,” Yong said.
Weatherall said there are four reasons people visit battlefields. The first are tours for veterans eager to revisit their previous battles, the second are staff rides (historical studies) to learn from the mistakes or tactics of a previous engagement, the third are remembrance tours, and finally, educational school tours.
Maintenance of historical sites is very important, as well as the ability of tour guides to tell the history of a place in a clear and concise manner.
“Looking at Malaysia, you have a rich, in-depth history of war from World War II. I think the Federal government and the state governments have to get together and be ‘fair dinkum’ of whether they really want to have military tourism, irregardless of differences,” Weatherall said.
“They can bring to the youth and today’s military the vast history that this country has. But it’s up to the respective departments to clean up their act. Certain areas need to refurbished and restructured. And put up signs, so people can go to a place and be impressed.”
According to Ong, the most important thing needed is education and awareness, to make locals realise the importance of these sites and why they should be preserved. This, he said, requires combined efforts by various parties, including schools, local tour guides, historical groups and Tourism Malaysia.
“We should work with the Malaya Historical Group (MHG) to perhaps create itineraries to some of the relic areas we have already discovered. We met with Tourism Malaysia, and told them we had the idea to include military tourism in the Malaysian tour guide’s syllabus,” he said.
According to Tan, preserving historical sites is crucial, as each of them tells an important story of our nation. Last year, he visited a number of them with Zafrani and Ong, and was shocked at the poor state they were in. It was for this reason that his team organised the Malaya At War conference, as well as a follow-up week-long war history tour going through Melaka, Ipoh, Taiping, Penang and more.
Tan added that he has plans to continue this “Malaya at War”
series, with another conference next year themed “The Final Retreat”. It will trace the final stage of the Allied Forces retreating to Singapore in the Malayan campaign. Holiday Tours and Travel would also be holding short tours and events catering to military history.
“To appreciate a site, one needs to understand the story or history behind it – to appreciate the heroism and sacrifices of those who were involved, and also those who suffered during those events,” Tan said.
“When you walk on the battlefield or the war historical site, you not only get a sense of what it was like during those years, but you also get a deep appreciation for those who were involved. And this, in a way, will bring out the nationalism and patriotism in a person.”
a comparison of the segamat bridge now to how it was in the days of World War II. It was intentionally destroyed by australian forces during the malayan campaign to sabotage incoming Japanese forces. It was subsequently repaired. This is one of the sites suggested by Tan to be promoted through military tourism.
members of the ‘malaya at War’ conference tour at the Parit sulong memorial in Johor. members of the ‘Preserving War historical sites and Promoting military history Tourism in malaysia’ panel: (from left) moderator seumas Tan, ong, yong, Zafrani arifin and Weatherall.
a comparison of the Gemas railway station now to how it was in the days of World War II. The historical buloh Kasap bridge in muar, which Tan gave as an example of a historical site which should be preserved and promoted.
‘malaya at War’ conference tour members visiting the Green ridge, the historical site of the battle of Kampar.